Trying to figure out what a ‘terrorism expert’ means

Years ago I attended an International Studies Association (ISA) conference in New Orleans and found myself in a small room at a hotel listening to a former CIA guy give a talk on something or other under the rubric of the ‘Intelligence Studies Group’ (or something to that effect).  I do not remember what his topic or perspective were but one thing he did say resonated with then and still does.  He said that when it comes to intelligence and expertise “there is no substitute for experience”.

The reason why this phrase comes up for me regularly has to do with what we as a society consider ‘expertise’ to be.  In the wake of an attack like that in Edmonton or Las Vegas we are inundated with ‘experts’: terrorism experts, mass shooting experts, security experts…the list goes on and on.  And I am going to argue that we are ill-served by a plethora of pseudo expertise.

First and foremost, what is an expert and how does a person become one?  Are there minimal criteria?  There certainly are for a lot of professions: medicine, engineering, law, etc.  Even to be called a university grad you have to have graduated from a university.  I, for example, did two years of a PhD in Linguistics at the University of Toronto but did not finish and would never call myself a doctor.  To do so would be dishonest.

But what are the necessary qualifications for an expert?  Published works?  Real life experience?  Relevant field work?  Probably all of the above, but how much?  These are questions that I do not have the answer to.  Does anybody?

I fear that an expert is in essence:

a) a person who calls him- or herself one

b) a person viewed so by others.

Neither definition satisfies me.

I am going to go out on a limb here and make some enemies.  An expert is someone with SIGNIFICANT experience – preferably in the real world and on the ground – in a subject area.  By significant experience I mean at least ten years and preferably twenty.  Writing papers does not cut it – sorry – unless you are a specialist in theoretical physics where a lot of the things you study are really hard to see.  Then again if you have written for decades on a given subject matter I would take that into consideration.

But bringing this back to terrorism, if you have written a fourth-year essay or are a PhD student in terrorism studies or even if you have taught terrorism courses for three years that does not make you an expert.  You may one day become one and I hope you do because we need really good people and old farts like me are not going to live forever.  So plug away, learn, get experience and be humble – no one likes an arrogant ass.  If all goes well your opinion too may have an impact in the future.  If someone calls you an expert today have the maturity to say ‘no, I am not an expert but I plan to be one’.

I don’t want to leave the impression that I am only slagging students or scholars.  Many former officials, including some in my former organisation (CSIS) and the RCMP, also self-promote as ‘terrorism experts’ and I for one do not see them as such.  There are lots of strands of work in national security – drugs, major crimes, organised crime, counter intelligence, counter proliferation, etc. – and no one can be an expert in all of them.  Just because you spent 20 years at CSIS does not make you an expert in whatever field you choose.

In light of all this I wish to remind my readers that I do not call myself a terrorism expert, mostly because I fear the term has little to no meaning anymore.  I prefer to be called the President of my company (Borealis) and/or a former CSIS strategic analyst (NOT an officer!).  If necessary I call myself a terrorism specialist – that is after all what I did at CSIS, Public Safety and the OPP for 15 years and what I have dedicated myself to in a post-civil service career.  For the record, here is how I justify being a specialist:

  • 32 years in intelligence with four agencies (CSE, CSIS, Public Safety and the OPP).
  • 15 years at CSIS as a senior strategic analyst looking at nothing but homegrown Islamist extremism, including first hand work on all counter terrorism investigations from 2001-2013 (I also provided training for intelligence officers, surveillants and human sources).
  • Testimony as an ‘expert witness’ (not my term) in terrorism trials/hearings
  • Three peer-reviewed books on terrorism so far (with a fourth on the way)
  • Hundreds of blogs and media interviews and thousands (yes, thousands) of presentations on terrorism and homegrown violent radicalisation to front line and first responders among many others.

Clearly I am biased but I think that should count for something.

In closing I have two recommendations. For consumers, the next time an ‘expert’ comes on TV ask yourself: who is this person and why is s/he an expert?  For media types, be more judicious in using the term since you are part of the problem right now.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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